She was standing outside my Au Bon Pain in a navy blue fleece with a white plastic shopping bag holding her stuff. "Could you help me get a little something to eat?"
My usual response would be to give her a dollar, tell her my name, ask hers and wish her a good day. Or to smile a slightly strained smile and say "Sorry, not today."
As I reached for my wallet, I said "Why don’t you come on inside and pick out what you want." She accepted quickly and eagerly. I think many street people might have demurred, declined, mumbled no thanks. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I should test that theory.
Brenda picked out two fat plain bagels from the ABP morning array of sweet treats and bagels. As she approached the counter and ordered her coffee, she saw the scones. She added one to her pile. I asked if she liked bananas. Yes. I got her two (they were not exactly perfect but even bananas with spotted peels are usually fine inside and besides bananas are good food to have along for the day). As we waited for the cashier to ring her up, Brenda spied the sandwich fixings at the other end of the bar. "You have sandwiches, too?" "Yes." She ordered ham and cheese. The bread choices were a bit overwhelming; she eventually chose a soft seeded roll. Lots of mayonnaise. Honey mustard.
"Will you sit and eat with me?" she asked. Oh my gosh. For the last year or two, I’ve had on my list of "things I want to be about this year" asking a street person to join me for a meal. I’ve never quite gotten the script down or felt the spaciousness of time on a workday (the only days I come in contact with street people). I’ve also wondered if panhandlers would be willing to give up prime panhandling time to chat with an aging upper middle class do-gooder lady over a meal. But, of course, that is for them to decide, not me. So here’s your chance, Trish. Brenda’s offering it to you, not the other way around. I have a briefing later this morning, and Connecticut staff are in my office trying to resolve computer problems. I have reasons to get upstairs to my desk. But, it’s only 8:30 and I usually don’t even show up at work before nine. So this must be the reason I left the house early today. To eat breakfast with Brenda.
"Yes. I’d like that."
Brenda’s story unfolded in bits and pieces as she hungrily ate her sandwich and bagels. She sleeps at a bus stop at 14th and U. This morning she met a lady who said she could stay with her until the middle of next month. She just needed to give her $20; the lady would help her get a little organized. Brenda's husband died a long time ago. Her children are grown, living in Hampton, Va. They "don't love me." They blame her for her husband's death, which she claims she had nothing to do with. She doesn't understand why they blame her. She cries as she talks about how they don't love her. She doesn't seem terribly embarrassed by her tears but I nonetheless feel the need to offer my Seekerly comment, "Tears are over what matters most to us." Or something like that.
"What would you do if you had a day where you could do whatever you want?" I ask. "I’d go shopping and get some pants and a top and I’d take a hot bath and get so clean - I’d scrape off seven layers of dirt. And wash my socks - my socks are hard as a rock they are so dirty. And I’d put some grease in my hair and brush my hair and make it look all shiny and nice and make myself feel pretty." She cries when she talks about feeling pretty. She says it several times. How nice it would be to feel pretty.
I’m sure I wished Brenda a blessed day as I went off to work. I don’t recall giving her bus fare, or the $20 she needed for the woman who offered her a room or a new pair of socks. I’m pretty sure what I gave her was just a little food and companionship for a few minutes. Not enough. Never enough. But something.
A fight to stay clean while Homeless.
I met Lorenzo when I first got into Alcoholic's Anonymous myself back in March of 2008. He had been in the program for quite some time. At that time, Lorenzo was homeless, and to this day, still is. However, you would never know it by his appearance. He is well-groomed and manages to wear nice clothes.
Lorenzo hails from Chicago where he grew up. He got into the abuse of drugs and alcohol in his late teens and his life was pretty much trashed. At some point, he decided that if he moved away, far away, that he could get away from using. So he headed for California. Grass is not always greener on the other side and Lorenzo began using again.
Lorenzo's parents had moved to the Washington area and Lorenzo thought that some time away from California might be good. He came to DC for a visit. He Stayed with his folks for some time until they moved away. Lorenzo was alone in Washington.
He was still using, and his habit was progressing. He found it hard to find and keep work, and he became homeless. He was in the AA program, but still struggling with his addictions.
When I met Lorenzo, he had been clean and sober for a short time. He was working part time doing some photography and living in a small shelter in Georgetown. A small group of other AA people, a few other homeless folks, Lorenzo and myself met for coffee each morning before the AA meeting. This is how I got to know Lorenzo fairly well.
A soft spoken, gentle man, Lorenzo and I became friends. I was struggling myself, new to the program, but reached out to Lorenzo. I brought him clothes, helped with breakfast and coffee and just was a friend to him.
Lorenzo succumbed to his addictions and was caught by the people at his shelter. He was put out and back into the main DC shelter systems where he had to share living space with 200 plus men. Eventually, he lost his job too. But everyday, Lorenzo was in the meeting. He wanted to be clean so badly.
Lorenzo managed, with a lot of hard work, to accrue 15 months of sobriety. Someone in the AA gave him a place to live. He was so happy to be away from that awful shelter. To be normal. But things didn't work out between him and his new room mate, and he returned to the shelter system. He picked up again, just a six pack, loosing his 15 months of sobriety. However, he got right back into AA.
Just recently, Lorenzo managed to get into another mini-shelter with just 5 other homeless men. He has a part time job working in a soup kitchen for the homeless.
I invited Lorenzo to come to my church at Seekers. And he has really enjoyed being there. I have heard him say that he likes working on his spiritual life as part of his AA program. It is a beautiful thing to see Lorenzo in this new light.
Update: Lorenzo has been living with friends now for over a year. He has over 7 months of sobriety and is finally getting used to the idea that he is homeless no more.
Make a promise, keep the promise.
I met Joe at a cafe in Autumn of 2008. I was always down town for an AA meeting early each morning. It was my time to try to find homeless people to reach out to.
Old Joe was an elderly guy who had a really bad limp and walked with a cane. It wasn't long before Joe and I became friends. I frequently bought him coffee and breakfast if I could swing it.
Joe actually lived right on this cafe's patio. There was a small vent near an unused doorway that emitted a little heat. Old Joe sat on the grate and slept there at night.
He had, at one time, a little part time job doing some janitorial work. It was enough to afford him a small room. But his illnesses caused him to lose his job and then as a result, his room. He had been homeless for a few months.
It was really starting to get cold. A women that frequented this cafe had promised to bring Joe a warm coat. And every morning, Joe would ask her about it. She would tell him she forgot. Joe was so hopeful that she would come through for him and didn't seem to want take me up on my offer to bring him a coat. However, it was really driving me crazy...this women and her promises and Joe's hope being dashed each morning. At night, it was below 40 degrees and Joe had nothing more than a sweatshirt.
The next time I saw Old Joe, I had with me a good winter jacket, long underwear, and other warm stuff. When I gave it all to Joe, he quickly disappeared into the bathroom and came out a few minutes later wearing his new snuggly stuff and a big smile.
He came to DC looking for work and found homelessness.
It was early morning and I was scoping out homeless people in Dupont Circle to see if I could help out in some way. A man passed, nodded his head at me and I smiled at him. He turned from his path and approached.
It didn't take long before we off to a cafe for coffee. Although I suspected he might be homeless, I wasn't sure. He was not dressed warm enough for the cool temperature.
Fifteen minutes into our conversation, my new friend Joseph admitted he was homeless. He had come to DC looking for work. When he didn't get a job, his money quickly ran out and he became homeless. For 3 months, he had been sleeping on a sidewalk near Washington Circle.
I let Joseph know about my work with homeless people and asked how I could help him. His first request was for a place to take a shower.
I took him home, let him shower and I did his laundry. Afterwards, I tried to help him find a job, but no luck.
My church, Seekers, helps me to help homeless folks. I told them about Joseph's situation and his desire to head back to Florida where he might find work. Within a few days, Joseph had a bus ticket and was headed home.
He put his addiction before a home.
As usual, I was downtown early for my AA meeting. And before the meeting, I was having coffee at a cafe. A tall, thin man with a beard walked in and headed straight for the bathroom. His only coat, a thin jean jacket. And it was a cold, cold morning. To me, that was a dead give-away that he was homeless.
When he finished in the bathroom, he came out and bought a bottle of orange juice. I left the cafe to wait outside in hopes that we could speak. I lit a cigarette while I waited. And when the man came out, he asked me for one.
I keep winter jackets in my van for just such occasions and I offered him one. His name was Bart. This was before 7am in the morning, and Bart mixed himself a giant drink of Vodka with just a splash of orange juice. He slurped down most of it in the five minutes or so that we chatted.
Bart told me that he had been homeless for four years. He had had a argument with his wife and lost his job about the same time. It wasn't long before Bart ended up homeless.
I am convinced that his obvious alcoholism had a lot to do with his plight. I invited Bart to join me at my AA meeting. His reply was that although he realized he was alcoholic, he was not ready to give up drinking. He said, "I am drunk and homeless now and I will likely die drunk and homeless."
My Homeless Home
Mental Illness: A common place among homeless people.
He was one of many friends that joined me for coffee each morning. J.D however, was one of the few that never disappeared after a little time. We knew each other for several years.
He was a young guy orginally from Haiti. J.D was friendly and well-spoken but it was not long before I realized he had serious mental issues. And I think a big part of it was mania.
Every morning, J.D would come see me at the cafe practically jumping out of his clothes from excitement. He had invented this idea for a street fair game he called, "Miami Chicken". It was just about the only thing he ever talked about. I had to love him anyways, he was a sweet person. Later I learned he suffered from voices in his head as well.
J.D had a "spot" in a stairwell nearby where he lived. I know the place and for a homeless person, it was a good one. Cool in the summer and sheltered from the wind in the winter.
As J.D's illness worsened he began to distance himself from me and our other friends. When I did see him, he was often in deep conversation with the voices in his head.
A warm bed is not always a safe one.
The first morning I saw him on the cafe patio, he was sipping coffee while surfing the web on his laptop. A large rolling suitcase sat on the ground beside him. Robert looked a lot more like a traveling business man than a homeless person. However, as the days passed, I realized that he was always wearing the same clothes. And when I realized that, I wanted to reach out.
It wasn't long before Robert and I were sharing conversation over coffee and bagels each morning. We talked about his plight. He did have Disability Checks coming in, but it wasn't enough to afford him a place to live. And like so many homeless people, Robert refused to stay at a homeless shelter.
Many homeless shelters are dangerous, scary places. Thefts and violence are common place. Add all that to the under paid and uneducated staff who often could not care a bit for the people they serve, and you have a place that may be warm but is likely not very safe.
Robert had applied for subsidized housing and was waiting for a slot to open up. Soon he had his new home and was on his way to a new life.
My getting to know Robert remind me of two things. One, you don't have to look homeless to be homeless. And, that sometimes it is preferred to stay "out there" to be safe.
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An advocate for Homeless People who suffers from mental illness, pleads with his church in this letter to them...
Contributed by Anonymous
I cannot even begin to express how difficult this is for me. When I wrote that request for you all to let me know if I should stay or go, I still had no idea, whatsoever that I have been very ill since around March 1st. I had began detoxing off a powerful mood stabilizer called Lithium. It was becoming more and more difficult to obtain it, money was an issue, and asking for help, always an issue with me.
I deeply regret my actions during this time. I totally understand confidentiality and the importance of it, especially in our church's Mission Group. I have been protected many times over my years with Seekers by the confidentiality requirements. My doctor saw me and said I was fine. And I felt fine, honestly. But in truth, I had a major manic episode, far worse than anything I have ever experienced. My doctor has put me back on lithium and other medications. But it has been not even two days since I have been back on it. I am still quite sick while trying to process everything and cope with everything with near complete isolation at the same time.
I would greatly appreciate it if you would consider consulting with experts on the havoc, manic episodes cause in the lives people like me and those who love them, please, before sending me away.
Heavy on my mind is what I have done and what terrible hurt I have caused. And now I have a much clearer understanding of why so many mentally ill people end up Homeless and disappear into the concrete.